Summer months bring an exciting change of pace for many young children. Baseball, softball, swimming and other games capture the majority of time for many school-aged children.
However, parents who encourage their children to be highly competitive athletes may not be doing them any favors according to Renette Wardlow, a human development specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
“An emphasis on excelling in organized, competitive sports may deprive children of the opportunity to develop other important skills and values,” said Wardlow. “We must ask ourselves if competition and cooperation really go together. Who’s to say that cooperation isn’t a more valuable skill than competition?”
Wardlow notes that some young athletes seem to develop a sense of team, support and empathy for teammates, but fail to carry these qualities over to other groups.
“Pressuring young children to participate in organized sports can cause psychological and physical damage, in addition emphasizing a social value that can be negative,” said Wardlow. “Organized sports, led by adults who are focused on winning at all costs, often lack creativity and opportunities for learning that children need for their development.”
Child development specialists point out that when children play without adult rules and leadership, scorekeeping is not important to them. Without adult rules, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, prizes aren’t needed for reward, and it often doesn’t matter if a game is finished.
“When children play among themselves they are learning social skills and values. They may not be playing the game according to all the right adult rules, but what matters more, the rules or keeping the game going,” said Wardlow. “Parents, eager to see their children win, may lose sight of the fact that sports are supposed to help their children develop, not vice-versa.”
Competitive organized sports concentrate on a minority of children. Wardlow says the majority who “don’t make the team” are ignored.
“Children who enjoy sports and have fun participating are more likely to stay active throughout their lives. Children who have negative feelings about sports, either because they couldn’t make the team or didn’t truly enjoy the sport, will be unlikely to grow into active adults,” said Wardlow.
Children often put a great deal of pressure on themselves to excel. Wardlow says parents must be careful not to add to this pressure. Children, like adults, suffer from competition and don’t always so their best in stressful situations.
“Parents should encourage their children to have fun and try a variety of sports and activities. True talent and skill will emerge on its own if the child has it; if not, why push and make the child feel inadequate,” said Wardlow.
For more information, contact any of MU Extension’s human development specialists in southwest Missouri: Renette Wardlow in Christian County at (417) 581-3558, Dr. Jim Wirth in Taney County at (417) 546-4431 or Angie Fletcher in Douglas County at (417) 683-4409.